Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

What is the bottom line on employee engagement….really.

with 2 comments

By guest blogger Scott Brooks

Employee engagement is important.  It has well-acknowledged meaning and impact.  It has the advantage of being universally applicable — virtually any organization with any type of employees should benefit from better measurement and understanding of how these employees connect to and add “oomph” to their work.

However, “engagement” is one possible focus for an employee opinion survey.  By itself it does nothing.  Like motivation, engagement without direction or ability is easily wasted.  Also like motivation, engagement supplies energy.  Measuring it alone is like measuring the gas in the gas tank without understanding the engine (aka an organization’s ability to create value).  At risk of a metaphor getting out of hand, important elements to measure can also include steering (agility), shock absorbers (resiliency), or GPS (leadership).

Here is another metaphor:  A focus on engagement is like a focus on individual concert musicians.  A truly strategic employee survey designed to understand and improve the whole symphony experience would likely examine perspectives of the conductor, sheet music, concert hall acoustics, and audience feedback.

A strength of engagement—it’s universal applicability—is also a limitation.  If an employee survey is to be strategic, it needs to measure strategic topics.  In for-profit organizations, strategic success is based on differentiation from competitors.  If Wal-Mart has the same strategy as Target, there is no competitive edge. Embrace all the best practices you want, but you cannot copy your way to competitive differentiation.  Engagement, it follows, is not a strategic topic.  Not by itself.  As a topic it holds no uniqueness for a given organization.  How an organization USES its engagement is where the unique, competitive edge will be found.  Employee surveys are excellent tools for drilling into not just engagement, but how it can be used.  How does an organization really create value?  This is where surveys really become strategic and connect with the passions of executives.  If a CEO could snap his or her fingers and have all the thousands of employees in an organization trying to improve one thing, what would it be?*  Would a CEO choose service, sales relationships, inventing next generation products?  Most often, leadership’s focus is on how an organization uses engagement, how value is created, and less on engagement itself.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t important.  But our job is to start with this focus, this engine, and then connect it to the gas tank.

(* This is one great definition of an employee survey, framing it in terms of action, not measurement.)

Linkage research is the statistical demonstration of relationships between engagement or other survey topics and business performance metrics such as sales, customer satisfaction, employee turnover, or safety.  It can help guide businesses on where to focus limited resources in order to maximize success. Embedding surveys (including employee engagement surveys) into a more comprehensive, multi-faceted research program adds more value than when each piece of work is performed independently. Engagement surveys form a piece of the business success puzzle, but business success is a puzzle with many pieces.  In fact, in head-to-head tests, the best predictor of customer loyalty is not engagement, but service climate.   The best predictor of safety is not engagement, but safety climate.  Similar statements can be said of quality, scalability, innovation, and a host of other important organizational outcomes.  In short, if you really want to drive improvement in “X,” you had better ask about “X” in your survey.

Where this leads us is that employee surveys should not be simply about employees.  Sure, we want to understand employee-centric topics, but employees are valuable sources of information about a much broader array of topics that help us understand and improve organizations.  We wouldn’t advocate that all possible topics are always included in employee surveys, certainly.  We want to be conscious about what we include and what we exclude.  Addressing engagement alone is almost certainly sub-optimizing the effort.  It is important not simply to ask employees about themselves, but to ask them about what they see around them.  They have a lot to say about work and effectiveness.

For many in the HR marketplace, engagement unfortunately has become an end and not a means.  We confuse the tool with an outcome unto itself.  In doing so, engagement has become a mono-focus for suppliers interested in high production and also for time-stressed buyers who want something simple.  It is certainly easy to create standard products and commodities based on engagement, a reasonably generic topic.  But the real goal is sustainable organizational change.  That is hard.  That is custom.  That is uniquely solved for each organization.


© 2012 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.


Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

January 18, 2012 at 9:44 am

2 Responses

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  1. Very good blog. I simply have 2 related comments.

    1st: I generally am not a strong proponent of surveys, as I have found too frequently most are not well conceived and are primarily done as part of an on-going practice. Consequently I have found limited value and in many cases they actually increase employee frustration since action rarely follows. I view employee surveys as essentially a gap analysis tool between the desired state and the real state. As such for a survey to be effective the desired state must 1st be identified (action based) and the survey questions developed around that state. In essence what is truly important to the organization. Of course then action must follow to close the identified gap.

    2nd: All organizations are structured the same in that they are a business engaged in daily operations carried out by people. Competition is never won on the basis of technology, capital or size, but on people. Therefore regardless of business sector or competitors it is the people who are either the ultimate competitive advantage or threat. Companies do not compete with companies. It is the people within each company that competes with the people in their competitor companies.

    Tim Garrett

    January 18, 2012 at 10:07 am

  2. Strongly agree.

    One aspect that we’ve worked on is moving away from an annual (or multi-year) engagement survey. If you’re surveying annually it can literally take years before you take a learning, implement change & see if it’s worked. 2+ years to implement a change that might not work is simply too long.

    Annual surveys tend to turn engagement into a box-ticking exercise. Our approach is to pulse check different employees over the whole year (with snapshots at appropriate junctures). This is then charted and correlated against actual action. We’ve found this to be very successful — it emphasises change over time, rather than a once-off.

    Also, we’ve found employee connect with the survey if they can connect & see with the actions it generates. This turns something that is often perceived as onerous to something employees actually buy into.

    Another related effect is over-analysis of engagement surveys. It’s important to get your survey right, and it’s important to look carefully at the results — We’ve seen surveys that drown organisations in data. It’s an easy mistake to get into analysis paralysis. It’s more important to actually act — just so long as you measure & refine as you go.

    Culture Amp (@cultureamp)

    January 26, 2012 at 3:53 am

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